The family of the late Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and five city officials responsible for her care, charging that they violated her constitutional rights as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The suit follows the medical examiner’s determination on July 30 that Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead in her restrictive housing cell at Rikers in June, died due to seizures caused by epilepsy. She also suffered from schizophrenia.
Polanco’s mother, Aracelis Polanco, and attorney David B. Shanies charge in the suit that the 27-year-old died because of medical neglect — and that she would be alive today if she had been treated in accordance with the law and Department of Correction policies.
“The city’s deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of inmates with serious medical needs in punitive segregation caused the death of Layleen Polanco,” the lawsuit states.
The suit mentions that jail officials were fully aware of her medical conditions and that they should have been more attentive and sensitive to her needs. Instead, the suit states, “She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch.”
As a result, the suit continues, the actions of the officials named in the suit, who “were deliberately indifferent to a known and substantial risk of serious injury to her,” “caused Layleen to choke to death and die alone in her cell.”
The lawsuit also faults the city for failing to train and discipline its employees in light of the risks faced by inmates with medical needs.
“The City tacitly authorized the pattern of misconduct witnessed here,” the suit states. “Nothing was done to investigate or forestall such incidents.”
The suit further cites violations of the 14th Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The family alleges Polanco did not receive reasonable accommodation for her medical conditions, which included neurological impairments stemming from her epilepsy.
“Had she been reasonably accommodated, she would have been detained in a readily observable cell, and would be alive,” the suit alleges. “As a result of the refusal to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability, Ms. Cubilette-Polanco suffered discrimination, unequal treatment, exclusion and violations of her rights under the laws of the United States…”
Polanco’s death adds to the growing list of transgender women of color who have died this year and comes during a time when transgender and gender non-conforming people have endured especially dangerous conditions behind bars. Johana Medina of El Salvador died just days before Polanco — on June 1 — after she landed in the hospital while in the custody of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and last year Roxsana Hernandez of Honduras died in a hospital after allegedly suffering bruises consistent with abuse while in ICE custody.